The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 40:3

This is the start of a new series, set to run through Easter, focusing on key Old Testament Scripture passages which were influential in the development and shaping of the early Gospel Tradition.

Isaiah 40:3

We begin with the opening section of the Gospel narrative. Both the Synoptic and Johannine narratives begin with a description of John the Baptist’s ministry; and, central to this description is a citation of Isaiah 40:3. Indeed, this quotation effectively marks the beginning point of the Synoptic narrative. The citation in Mark 1:3 is virtually identical with the LXX of Isa 40:3:

“A voice crying (out) in the desolate (land): ‘Make ready the way of (the) Lord, make His broken (path)s straight!'”
fwnh\ bow=nte$ e)n th=| e)rh/mw|: e)toima/sate th\n o(do\n kuri/ou eu)qei/a$ poiei=te ta\$ tri/bou$ au)tou=

The only difference is that the LXX has “the broken (path)s of our God” rather than “…His broken (path)s”. The LXX is a reasonably accurate rendering of the Hebrew, a literal translation of which (in English) would be:

“A voice (is) calling (out): ‘Turn (your) face in the hinterland [i.e. desert] (to) the way/path of YHWH! Make straight in the (desert) plain a place (to walk) up for our God!'”

The text (and context) of the Hebrew will be discussed in the supplemental notes on Isa 40:1-8.

According to the generally-accepted theory regarding the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke each made use of the Markan Gospel. Matthew’s account in 3:1-6 does follow Mk 1:3-5 quite closely, while Luke 3:1-6f differs more noticeably. Neither Matthew or Luke follows the composite citation (of Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3) in Mk 1:2-3. If those Gospel writers did make use of Mark, then they must have ‘corrected’ the citation to include only the words from Isaiah. Another possibility is that their Synoptic source was not the Gospel of Mark per se, but (a collection of) material, earlier than Mark, which was common to all three Gospels. With this theory, the Synoptic source contained the citation of Isa 40:3, and it was the Markan writer who added Mal 3:1.

In the Synoptics, the quotation of Isa 40:3 is part of the introductory narration, applied by the Gospel writers (and other early Christians) to John the Baptist and his ministry. However, in the Gospel of John (1:19-28), it is the Baptist himself who cites the Scripture (v. 23). There are reasons, on objective grounds, to accept the historicity of this detail—viz., that John the Baptist applied Isa 40:3 to himself, as the basis (and reason) for his ministry in the Judean desert. The use of Isa 40:3 by the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. below) for a similar purpose makes this all the more likely.

If an identification with the “voice” of Isa 40:3 was genuinely part of John the Baptist’s self-understanding, and featured in his ministry, then it explains how this Scripture would have become fixed in the early Tradition. It was based on historical memory, derived from John’s own preaching.

Originally, Isa 40:3 referred to the immediate expectation of a return from Exile for Israelites and Judeans. Regardless of one’s view on the authorship/composition of the Deutero-Isaian poems (chaps. 40-55), they are clearly written from the standpoint of the Exile, and the promise of return/restoration is a fundamental theme throughout. Over the course of time, however, these poems took on more of an eschatological emphasis. Based on this line of development, the idea of YHWH appearing to bring His people out of Exile was transformed into an end-time appearance, when He would bring Judgment on the nations and deliver His people at the end of the Age.

This eschatological interpretation informs the use of Isa 40:3, both by John the Baptist and by the Qumran Community. In each instance, the motif of “preparing the way” for the Lord relates to the idea of preparing for the eschatological event. For the Community of the Qumran texts, the identification with Isa 40:3 is found most clearly in the so-called Rule of the Community [1QS] text:

“And when these have become a community in Israel in compliance with these arrangements, they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of  ****, straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law wh[i]ch He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy Spirit.” (8:12-16).

This is one of several data-points that has led some scholars to theorize a relationship, or at least some contact, between John the Baptist and the Community of the Qumran texts (usually identified as Essene). I have discussed this subject in an earlier article. In any case, John’s manner of “preparing the way” is quite different from that of the Qumran Community. The focus of his ministry (preaching and baptizing) was to lead the people of Israel to repent and change their lives, in preparation for the coming of the Great Day (of Judgment, thought to be imminent). This can be viewed as a democratization of the sectarian orientation of the Qumran Community. Rather than being required to join a regulated Community, it was enough for people to repent, sincerely, and to commit themselves to an upright way of life. The cleansing symbolized by his baptism rite, much like the ritual washings that took place in the Qumran Community, was an important component demonstrating this shift in mindset and behavior.

Given the emphasis on leading people to repentance, it is little surprise that John’s ministry came to be identified with the coming of “Elijah” in Malachi 4:5-6 [3:23-24]. This identification of John the Baptist with the “Elijah” of the end-time was relatively widespread among early Christians. It is more or less explicit in Luke 1:17, and Jesus seems to affirm the point as well (Mk 9:11-13 par; Matt 11:14). A popular association is indicated in Mk 6:15; 8:28 par, and by the description of John’s appearance and dwelling in the desert (Mk 1:6 par). However, according to Jn 1:21, the Baptist himself specifically denies any such an identification, implying that Jesus should be considered the “Elijah to come”; and, indeed, during the time of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus appears to have been identified with Elijah at a number of points in the early Tradition. For more on this subject, cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and also the articles on the Baptism of Jesus in “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

There can be little doubt that the eschatological orientation of John’s ministry, at the historical level, was closely related to the Messianic expectations among Israelites and Jews at the time. This comes through clearly enough in the Gospel accounts as we have them, even though it may not be immediately obvious upon a casual reading. The Gospel Tradition presents, in various ways, a juxtaposition between John the Baptist and Jesus, regarding the Messianic identity of each. This contrast—affirming it for Jesus rather than John—is implicit in the tradition of the Baptist’s saying in Mk 1:7-8 par, and is dealt with more directly by Luke (3:15ff), and especially in the Gospel of John (1:19-28, cp. vv. 6-8, 15/30; 3:26-30ff). In Jn 1:19-23, the Baptist explicitly denies being several different Messianic figure-types. It is not entirely clear what “the Messiah” signifies here; at the historical level, it seems unlikely that it is a reference to the royal (Davidic) Messiah, seeing as the Prophetic figures—especially “Elijah” and Moses (“the Prophet [like Moses]”)—are more directly applicable to John. While the Davidic figure-type came to dominate Messianic thought, in the 1st century B.C./A.D. the Messianic expectations of Israelites and Jews, represented (for example) by the Qumran texts, appears to have been more varied and diverse. There are a number of Messianic figure-types, which I have surveyed in considerable detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and essentially all of them were applied to Jesus by early Christians. The Baptist’s response in Jn 1:20ff does much the same.

In John’s original preaching, etc, “the Lord” for whom he is preparing the way is YHWH—the eschatological point of reference, in applying the Scripture, is the end-time appearance of YHWH, when He comes to bring Judgment on the earth and to save/deliver His people. However, the idea was generally accepted that God would act through a chosen representative, as His intermediary. Most commonly this was understood as a heavenly figure (Angel, etc), but it came to be applied to a range of Messianic figure-types as well (as detailed in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Such an “Anointed One” could be a human being (such as a ruler from the line of David [Parts 68]), or a heavenly being (Michael, ‘Melchizedek,’ the “Son of Man” figure-type, etc [Part 10]), or some mixture of both. In Malachi 3:1ff, the Messenger who precedes YHWH, and who appears on His behalf, is best understood (in the original context) as an Angelic/heavenly figure. While Mark 1:2 (cf. also Lk 7:27 par), identifies John the Baptist as this Messenger, there is no indication that the Baptist viewed himself as such. Indeed, when he speaks of “the (one who is) coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$), most likely an allusion to Mal 3:1ff (LXX) [cf. the discussion in my earlier note], he is unquestionably referring to another—a heavenly/Messianic figure, identified with Jesus (at the Baptism) in the early Gospel Tradition. The use of Isa 42:1ff in shaping this particular line of tradition, will be the subject of the next article in this series.

Additional Note on Isa 40:3 and the Qumran Community

As noted above, Isaiah 40:3 was an important Scripture in terms of the Qumran Community’s self-identity. Many of the Qumran texts evince a belief that the end was near, and that the Community, as the faithful ones (or “remnant”) of Israel, held a central place in the work of God that was about to take place. This is expressed most clearly in two central documents which shape and define the history and character of the Community—the “Community Rule” [1QS, etc] and the so-called Damascus Document [CD/QD]. I already mentioned the citation of Isa 40:3 in 8:12-16; another allusion is to be found at 9:19-20:

“This is the time for making ready the path to the desert, and he will teach them about all that has been discovered, so that they can carry it out in this moment…” (9:19-20)

The Community of these texts has separated from all other people, living apart together in the desert (presumably at the site of Khirbet Qumrân, among others[?]), devoting themselves to a strict communal lifestyle centered on the study and exposition/interpretation of the Law and Prophets. This Way (Heb. Er#D#) in the desert is a “way of holiness” (cf. Isa 35:8ff; 57:14), which also draws upon several important images and ideas from Israelite history and the oracles of the Prophets (esp. Deutero-Isaiah):

    • The return of exiles to the Land—defined in terms of the the coming of salvation from God (Isa 62:10-11)
    • This is parallel to the way of the Israelites through the wilderness (i.e. the Exodus traditions) into the Promised Land (Isa 11:16; 48:21; 51:10-11)
    • This same salvation is also understood more properly in an eschatological sense, in terms of the coming Judgment (Isa 1:27-31, etc)

These aspects play on the dual meaning of the verb bWv (šû», “turn, return”)—i.e., (1) the return from exile and the restoration of Israel, and (2) a return to God, that is, a turning back away from sin. The Qumran Community refers to itself at times as <yb!v* (š¹»îm), “ones turning/returning”, in two qualified senses:

    • The š¹»ê Yi´r¹°¢l—the faithful ones or “converts” of Israel, i.e. those who have joined the Community (CD 4:2-3; 6:3-7)
    • The š¹»ê peša±—the ones who have turned away (i.e. repented) from sin (CD 2:5; 20:17; 1QS 1:17; 10:20; 1QHa VI.24; X.9; XIV. 6); the expression is likely derived from Isaiah 59:20f.

By turning from sin and the wickedness/faithlessness of the world, and joining the Community, one follows the “way of holiness” and prepares for the end-time Judgment and the salvation God will bring for his faithful ones.

Additional Note on the Text of Isa 40:3 and Its Use in the NT

All three Synoptic Gospels follow the LXX, except for the substitution of au)tou= (“his”) in place of tou= qeou= h(mw=n (“of our God”), which may have been an intentional (Christian) modification; in any case, it helps to make the passage apply to Jesus, rather than God the Father (YHWH). Luke is unique in giving a more complete quotation, of verses 3-5 (though 5a is omitted). Again the LXX is followed, with only a few minor differences. Here is the Lukan rendering of vv. 3-5 inclusive (with 5a omitted):

“A voice crying (out) in the desolate (land): ‘Make ready the way of (the) Lord, make His broken (path)s straight! Every chasm will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be made low; and the winding (place)s will be (turned) into a straight (road), and the rough (spots) into smooth paths; and all flesh will see the salvation of our God!'”

One may understand the early Christian use and application of Isa 40:3 three ways, or on three distinct levels (cf. the discussion above):

    1. At the historical level—i.e. what John said about himself, or how he was viewed by people at the time
    2. In an eschatological or Messianic sense—John as the herald who prepares people for the coming of God (and His Judgment) at the end-time, and
    3. In relationship to Christ—as the forerunner who prepares people for the appearance of Jesus

Translations of the Qumran texts given above (adapted slightly) are from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8 & 2000).



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